When Destiny first launched, it was a half-baked, punishing game with the barest hint of a story, delivered through crummy dialogue and repetitive missions that tasked you with shooting endless waves of enemies. One year later, everything's changed.
I've spent much of the past 24 hours powering through Destiny's big Year Two expansion, The Taken King, which came out yesterday morning. I did the first story quest -- consisting of eight meaty missions -- and then I plugged away at many of the other quests that pop up once you've beaten the first one. I completed a few strikes, shot through some PVP matches, and spent some time exploring the Dreadnaught, a new planet-sized ship that's full of hidden treasures and obscure secrets. And I still feel like there's so much more to do. (You can expect our full review in a week or two, once Kirk and I have had way more time with the game.)
In recent Destiny ledes, I've snarked that after a year, Bungie's ambitious shooter-MMO hybrid is finally out of beta. Like all the best Destiny snark, that rings true. After playing Destiny 2.0, it's almost hard to believe that Bungie once made so many horrible decisions, and it's nice to be able to look back and laugh, knowing how much better the game has become. Remember when purple engrams would drop blue weapons? And we had to go to vendors to see our faction reputations? Can you believe we had to re-level all our exotics? Ha ha ha.
Now, fortunately for long-time players who bought into Bungie's promises of iteration, Destiny has received a truckload of little tweaks and enhancements that make everything feel more player-friendly in ways the game's never seen before. It's those little things, the ones nobody really understands unless they have played Destiny, that make the biggest difference. You can skip cutscenes! You can turn in bounties without going back to the tower! You can walk around without a helmet!!!
Destiny's best new feature, the quest system, is a good example of how the game has evolved. In the past, when Bungie wanted to give players new things to do, whether it be DLC missions or lengthy exotic weapon quests, the designers would put them all in bounty slots, where they'd occupy the precious space used for other, more short-term tasks. Raising the number of total bounty slots from five to 10 helped alleviate this a bit, but it was still an inelegant, annoying system that forced people to be picky about which bounties they wanted to complete.
In Destiny 2.0, though, everything's different. All of the game's missions -- even the ones from last September -- are now organised into quest-lines that are easy to track and finish. You can see them all in a sharp, flavorful new "quests" menu on your character screen. (One thing Destiny never gets enough credit for: How brilliant the UI design is all around.)
Some of these quests task you with doing some really interesting things; others lead into one another in ways that weren't really possible with vanilla Destiny. The system is flexible enough to allow Bungie to keep adding new content through the form of "quests" over the next few weeks, months, and years, which presumably they will do.
The Taken King's first eight missions, which are delivered through one of these quest-lines, are also indicative of how much Destiny has changed over the past year. No longer do you stand in a room and shoot through waves of enemies; now there exists the type of actual variety you might have expected to see a year ago, with stealth and platforming and interactive objects that you can use to solve rudimentary puzzles. We saw this evolution start with Destiny's first expansion, The Dark Below, and continue with the second, House of Wolves; now, after a year's worth of iteration, it finally feels like Destiny is living up to the lofty promises Bungie made when they first announced the game.
Problem is, there's not much to make fun of anymore. Even the story is interesting -- yes, Destiny has a story now! -- mostly because the writers have finally figured out how to deliver it. No longer must you suffer through a series of cutscenes in which insufferable people yell enigmatic things at you. Now, characters like Zavala and Eris Morn will talk to each other on the radio, playing off one another and revealing a level of personality I never thought we'd see from the gruff world of Destiny. Ghost replacement Nolan North does a fine job in the role, but Nathan Fillion's Cayde-6 is the real star of the show; if you've ever wanted to shoot aliens while listening to Captain Mal make fun of everyone, this is your game.
I still don't feel like I've gotten a handle on everything in The Taken King. Even after you beat the first main storyline, you're hit with an almost overwhelming number of new quests and other things to do, including, for the first time in Destiny, a large new map with its own patrol missions and quests. Meet the Dreadnaught.
The Dreadnaught might be the most impressive new thing in Destiny. I say "might be" because I honestly have no idea. While exploring the Dreadnaught with Kirk last night, I kept finding weird secrets, including chests that I have no idea how to open. For example:
What's the Key of Xol? Where can I get it? How do I activate it? I have no idea, and that's part of what makes The Taken King so great. Bungie's designers have taken the unexplained mysteries of last year's Vault of Glass raid and infused them in every part of the Dreadnaught, and that's a very, very good thing. I'm psyched to dig in more and try to figure out just what the hell is up with all of the Dreadnaught's hidden passages and objects.
What're Skyburners Deployment Codes and how the hell do I get them? I HAVE NO IDEA. And don't even get me started on the Wormsinger Rune, whatever that is.
A year later, Destiny's changed in some wonderful ways. It's been a very slow change, yes, and those of us who have been playing since last September will talk newcomers' heads off about how good they have it now, but it's all welcome.
It's impossible to tell what The Taken King's longevity will be like. We won't get our heads around the weekly rhythm until the raid comes out and more time passes. For now, though, it's safe to say that as Year Two kicks off, Destiny is better than it's ever been.